Shorter days, a chill in the air, and pumpkin lattes signify autumn's presence. Leaves turn beautiful color and then, dried up, fall to the ground.
I've always looked forward to autumn after summer's heat. For me, fall represents a rebirthing process, and death plays a crucial role in that cycle. Even in Los Angeles where I live, which some people see as almost season-less, we feel those changes in our bodies.
Even in warmer climates, some may feel low energy and other symptoms related to seasonal transition. Many of my patients dread autumn. As the days grow shorter, some experience more mood swings and depression. They also suffer more colds, flus, runny noses, clogged sinuses and dry skin.
In Eastern Medicine, your lungs and large intestine, which prefer warmth and moisture, can become extra sensitive in autumn. Coughing, sinus problems, and other respiratory issues frequently occur as the weather becomes cooler and dryer.
From that perspective, autumn means taking extra care of your body and protecting your energy levels to prevent illness.
Another way to look at this is: If spring and summer are expansive and opening, autumn and winter signify contracting and going inward. That latter process is much harder for your body. Recall the exciting, joyful, possibility-filled feeling spring and summer bring.
That's not to say the upcoming season isn't joyous. After all, we've got Thanksgiving (my favorite holiday!) and December festivities to welcome.
At the same time, let's acknowledge autumn can also decrease motivation as well as trigger low mood and energy levels. Some people thrive in autumn; others, not so much. That's fine. Stop pressuring yourself to feel exuberant when your body needs time to adjust to seasonal transition.
Over my 14 years as an acupuncturist, I've found these five strategies can optimize immunity and minimize mood swings as the days grow shorter:
1. Get an extra 30 - 60 minutes of sleep every night. Not always possible, but the extra rest can help boost your immune system and help your body better detoxify. A study in the journal Gerontology found that "sleep deprivation and restriction impair immune responses by disrupting circadian rhythms at the level of immune cells..." Look at that extra time investment as health insurance so you take fewer sick days. Sleep also helps you stay lean and healthy: A study in the journal Obesity (Silver Spring) found women who get optimal amounts of sleep experience better fat loss. Quantity and quality count here.
2. Check your vitamin D levels. Even if you live in sunny LA, you might not be making optimal vitamin D levels in winter. If you live in a colder, darker climates, chances are you aren't. A study in the Journal of Investigative Medicine found vitamin D plays a crucial role in immune regulation. Researchers learned deficiencies could increase autoimmunity and infection susceptibility. Ask your doctor for a 25-hydroxyvitamin D test and supplement until your levels reach 60 - 100 ng/ml.
3. Address your emotions. Darker, cooler days sometimes increase emotions like sadness and grief. For some people, increased exercise or even yoga helps reduce these debilitating emotions. For others, meditation helps. Sometimes just becoming mindful and aware of these emotions can reduce their impact. For me, autumn is the anniversary of my father's passing, so I work to release grief. Think of deep-seated emotions like grief as layers, almost like an onion, which you gradually shed.
4. Stay hydrated. Drinking enough water keeps your respiratory tissue moist and optimizes immunity. Conversely, even mild dehydration can impair your immune system. Once you realize you're thirsty, you're already dehydrated. Don't forget water-dense autumn fruits like persimmons, passion fruits, pears, pomegranate, and quince. Autumnal veggies daikon, sweet potatoes, radicchio, Brussels sprouts, squashes and pumpkins also provide hydration. Juicing makes a smart alternate way to get these water- and nutrient-dense foods.
5. Reduce stress. Rushing around to pick kids up from band practice and get a healthy dinner on the table can increase anxiety, stress, and other emotions that deliver a major whammy to your immune system. A study in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity found that, especially as we age, stress adversely impacts immune function. In the chaos, find a reminder to help you slow down, breathe, and find your center of calm.
Maciocia, Giovanni. The Foundations of Chinese Medicine: A Comprehensive Text for Acupuncturists and Herbalists. PA: Churchill Livingstone, 1989.
Pitchford, Paul. Healing with Whole Foods Oriental Traditions and Modern Nutrition. CA: North Atlantic Books, 1993.
For more by Grace Suh Coscia, L.Ac., Dipl.O.M., click here.
For more on natural health, click here.